A couple of decades have passed since the heyday of African American literature’s canon formation—that period from the 1970s to the 1990s when primary sources were scoured for material that could be excerpted in anthologies, forgotten texts were given a new lease on life through reprints and scholarly editions, and mislaid or previously unknown works were excavated from dusty archives and made public for the first time. These efforts not only established the fact of a long-standing African American literary tradition but also legitimated the professional study of that tradition. It was a time of literary recovery and constitution, a time when demanding academic recognition was the name of the game.
Today, several years removed from institutionalization, African American literary studies is witnessing a return to the kind of empirical research that made canon-building possible. The field’s “archival turn” reflects broader shifts in the discipline, including a certain exhaustion with rote or careless theoretical criticism, but it also marks a specific crossroads in how scholars engage with the African American canon. On the one hand are those whose field orientation “no longer requires an immediate political concern or social movement to authorize its lines of critical inquiry.” Such scholars feel encouraged to “return to the archive for the sake of returning to the archive” (Wilson 34)—that is, to treat the repository as an object of study unto itself, not the means to an end. On the other hand are those whose archival practice is positioned to legitimate the field’s extant body of knowledge. While undertaking the laudable effort of bringing new literary works to light, these scholars tend to play the hoary game of recognition—that is, to address the significance of whatever they find in the archive to a satellite of predetermined, canon-conserving interests. Doing so yields immediate legitimation for the archival discovery, but it also limits their understanding of what makes that discovery proper to the archive.
Since the archival turn, the field’s most publicized discoveries have been framed in the narrow terms of canonical legitimation. In September 2012, for example, an article in the New York Times announced the discovery of Amiable with Big Teeth (a previously unknown novel by Claude McKay completed in 1941) by Columbia University graduate student Jean-Christophe Cloutier in collaboration with professor Brent Hayes Edwards. The article takes for granted that Amiable’s specialness lies in what it can tell us about the Harlem Renaissance. The key figure from the recovery era, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—who, not coincidentally, was asked to authenticate the work—is quoted in the piece as saying, “It dramatically expands the canon of novels by Harlem Renaissance writers,” and McKay’s story, which is set in 1936, “shows that the renaissance continued to be vibrant and creative and turned its focus to international issues” at that late date. As if it were a separate issue entirely, the article mentions that the typescript for McKay’s narrative had been languishing in the papers of Samuel Roth, the underground publisher whose trade in literary erotica tested local and federal obscenity statutes for years. No one quoted in the piece is able or willing to shed light on how the typescript ended up in his hands, much less explain why that matters. Instead, Amiable’s importance is framed by all too familiar critical judgments about the past. Edwards declares, “I cannot think of another novel that gives us such a rich and multilayered portrayal of black life,” adding that, in due time, the book would be recognized “as the key political novel of the black intellectual life in New York in the late 1930s” (Lee). Edwards strikes a triumphant note, but his assessment of the novel rings true only in an anechoic chamber of canon-conserving legitimation.
Discoveries such as Amiable advance literary history because they fill gaps in knowledge that are recognized as gaps only in retrospect. However, it is a mistake to presume that the value of a recovered work rests primarily on its status as an inherent contribution to the African American literary canon. In the case of McKay’s typescript, for example, Gates and Edwards use legitimating critical designations—the period of the Harlem Renaissance and the genre of the political novel—to describe a text that may exceed those designations. Rather than attend to why Amiable may have been lost (or just went unpublished) in the first place, the typescript’s discovery is reported in terms that make it completely legible to standard periodization and classification. I resist such a practice because, in essence, it substitutes an ideology of textual presence (“Look what I found!”) for an assessment of archival absence (“Why is this here at all?”). The former, I believe, confirms what we already know about the literary field whereas the latter challenges our assumptions about the same by dwelling on the material conditions of a text’s obscurity. This distinction is not only conceptual but also practical, for each mode of argument entails a different relationship (at least as it manifests in the public record) to the archive. Whereas the ideology of textual presence instrumentalizes the archive to arrive at an end, the focus on textual absence treats the archive itself as both site and medium of inquiry.
In order to move beyond the critical blind spots of canon conservation, I suggest that scholars reflect on the lostness, or condition of being lost, that characterizes African American archives in the wake of institutionalization. Framing an archival discovery in familiar terms—that is, through conventional wisdom about authors, genres, periods, and the like—runs the risk of overstating a work’s importance and impact while insisting on its self-sufficiency as an object. As inviting as it seems, this recourse to well-established grounds misrepresents the value not of the literary work as such but of the literary work’s place in history. By contrast, approaching an archival discovery precisely as a lost object demands writing a history of obsolescence wherein past failures yield meaningful insight on their own terms. This history would aim to understand a work’s obscurity through the very materials with which it is housed. It is only the sum of an archive’s parts, I contend, that can point to what is important about a literary work’s lostness.
In this essay, I model a practice of archival discovery that attends to the conditions that would produce textual absence. Specifically, I examine a forgotten African American novel whose afterlife is all but restricted to the archived papers that document the book’s production, distribution, and reception in its time. How would one write a history of this book? What can its contemporary obscurity teach us about the past? Why should we care about something whose relative insignificance is the point to be driven home? I consider these and related questions.
The focus of my inquiry is The Negotiations: A Novel of Tomorrow (1983). In 1983, the independent, Chicago-based Path Press resumed operations after a ten-year hiatus with the publication of this, co-founder Herman Cromwell Gilbert’s second book. The novel’s impetus—exploring what happens when black separatism in the United States becomes a near reality—was nostalgic: it played on readers’ lingering attachments to Black Power and the movement for racial self-determination. At the same time, the narrative’s form—futuristic yet strangely familiar—was speculative: set in 1987, it advanced an optimistic outlook on the future of black electoral politics, one that was based, in fact, on the growing influence of African Americans in local and national politics. The Negotiations held these contradictory impulses in tandem, leaving readers to decide whether and how to reconcile the desire for black separatism with advocacy of racial interests within the system. Thus, navigating between nationalist sentiment, on the one hand, and institutional politics, on the other, the book captured a key moment of ideological transition in black social and political life.
The Negotiations was published in a handsome hardcover edition. Its eyecatching dust jacket illustrated Gilbert’s separatist premise: two figures—one white, one brown—literally go head to head as they negotiate the nation’s future (see color plate 4). While that image might have intrigued the inquisitive, the novel’s literary aspirations could be seen once the jacket came off: with the spine information (title, author, and publisher’s logo) decorated in gilt and the binding colored a deep leathery brown, the book had the appearance of a Bible. Unlike the Bible’s typically flimsy pages, however, the pages in this book were made of heavy stock, the kind that is difficult to bend or tear. Simply put, the book’s packaging gave off the impression of seriousness and taste; The Negotiations was something readers were meant to keep.
To subsidize a book of such design quality, the company needed to sell as many copies of it as possible. Path initially had made arrangements with Chicago Review Press to handle the novel’s marketing. Operating in the same city as Path, Chicago Review had a reputation as a national distributor of independently published books. It seemed to be a perfect match on paper, but the collaboration turned out to be a misfit. Chicago Review’s normal distribution channels regularly overlooked Path’s target audience—middle-class African Americans. Theirs was a distinct reading public that few white-owned publishing houses knew much about. Only a mile and a half separated the firms’ offices in the Loop, yet given the readers they hoped to reach, Path and Chicago Review might as well have been in different cities.
Path Press’s own, ultimately far more effective, distribution plan came in the form of independent agents who sold copies of the book to friends, neighbors, and associates in their communities. These agents carried The Negotiations around with them, integrating it into conversation and thereby facilitating word-of-mouth advertising. At some point, given enough local demand, independent agents or community luminaries would invite Gilbert to visit town. There, in addition to conducting interviews with local media and attending other speaking engagements, Gilbert would have book or autograph parties thrown in his honor. The intimacy of these events made appearances feel less like stops on a book tour and more like organic social gatherings. In the end, this grassroots marketing campaign was a huge success. The novel became the firm’s best-selling title, and the eleven thousand copies sold supported its operations for years (Joyce, Black 182; Anderson).
Seeking to expand The Negotiations’ reception beyond the black community, Path Press spent the next ten years trying to sell the paperback rights to the novel and to adapt it into a movie. These prospects were not mutually exclusive, for, by the 1970s, paperback houses had refined the practice of using the mass-market book as a vehicle for promoting the current or next Hollywood blockbuster.1 In view of these market dynamics, Path tried to develop a viable crossover strategy for Gilbert’s novel, pitching it to New York literary agents and paperback publishers as well as to Hollywood film producers and screenwriters. Over several years, the book failed to attract any interest, and when the solicited parties responded to Path’s correspondence at all, they pointed to the novel’s didactic political message as a major hindrance to crossover success.
The Negotiations felt less relevant as the years went by. Because it was available only in its original hardcover form, it struggled to gain an audience beyond those targeted by Path’s network of agents. Efforts to adapt the narrative into a movie limped along into the 1990s, but the book simply did not seem fit for the times. The Negotiations’ descent into obscurity was so rapid, in fact, that when Gilbert passed in 1997, the firm’s surviving co-founder, Bennett J. Johnson, began donating company records to the Vivian G. Harsh Collection of Afro-American History and Literature at the Woodson Regional Library in Chicago. The company was history by then, and its papers eventually became the Path Press Archives. There the story of this curious title has remained.
In remembering The Negotiations in this essay, my intention is not to claim that the text itself holds value for African American literary history. Rather, I argue that the novel’s very lostness—its path toward becoming obscure—is what makes it a revealing and rewarding object of inquiry. Analyzing The Negotiations’ narrative and contextual meaning through the concepts of alignment and prescience, I claim that Gilbert’s novel featured a built-in horizon of reception. By this I mean that the exact textual-contextual conjunctures that made The Negotiations popular for a time also explain why it became obsolete when that period expired. Like a comet that flashes in the night sky, the novel’s reception had to vaporize, to turn into archival dust,2 because it could neither align with readers’ interests nor maintain a prescient stance in the world forever. Before it crossed the horizon, however, for that brief moment of brilliance, the novel did make a profound impression on middle-class African American readers. This was especially so given the book’s narrative and material links to black Chicago, historically a beacon and bellwether of progressive racial politics. Crucially, only the Path Press Archives contain a paper trail that intertwines vaporization and brilliance into a single account of this book’s ephemeral appeal. To retrace the comet’s tail of that account, I recommend we turn to the repository and attend to the specific reasons why the novel simply faded away.
An Alignment of Interests
Born in Mariana, Arkansas, to Van Luther and Cora Gilbert in 1923, Herman Cromwell Gilbert became a major figure in black Chicago media and political circles in the latter half of the twentieth century. Having served in the US Army Air Forces during World War II (1943 to 1946), he came to the city and fell in with student activists at the newly chartered Roosevelt College (now Roosevelt University) downtown. Founded in 1945 as Thomas Jefferson College and renamed following the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in April of that year, the upstart institution boasted a strong progressive streak, attracting youth who were committed to social change. This reputation flowed from the example set by its founder, Edward J. Sparling. Previously the president of the Central YMCA College in Chicago, Sparling had suspected his board of devising a quota system that would limit the enrollment of blacks, Jews, immigrants, and women at the school. In protest, he not only resigned his position but also invited faculty and students who shared his views to join him in founding an alternative institution of higher education (“Our”). This egalitarian mission made Roosevelt a hotbed for progressive interracial alliances, and, as we will see, many of Gilbert’s confidants and collaborators throughout the years had a Roosevelt connection.
From the 1950s on, Gilbert led a kind of double life. On the one hand, he had secure day jobs that paid the bills, while on the other, he remained a committed social and political activist in black Chicago. As to the former, he began as program coordinator for the Chicago branch of the United Packinghouse Workers of America. In 1957, he moved to the Illinois Department of Labor’s Bureau of Employment Security. He would remain with the Bureau until 1980, serving as manager of its automated systems (that is, computer) section and then as an assistant administrator for the division. Yet during this long period of government employment, Gilbert never gave up on his advocacy. In 1958, he co-founded the Chicago League of Negro Voters, an independent, nonpartisan group that supported black candidates in citywide elections, even when those candidates ran against the city’s notorious political bosses. In the 1960s, Gilbert helped coordinate voter registration drives and protests against poll intimidation. Complementing these efforts were Gilbert’s stints as editor and columnist for a number of Chicago’s African American newspapers. These positions allowed him to record his advocacy in the public sphere, and they gave Gilbert his first real taste of life as a professional writer.
Of course, Gilbert’s most ambitious side project was to start his own publishing company. During his early years at the Illinois Department of Labor, he collaborated with Bennett J. Johnson, an old friend from Roosevelt and another mainstay in black Chicago politics, to establish a house that could publicize their shared political ideals. In 1969, the pair announced the debut of Path Press, a firm committed to bringing out literature that both reflected and advanced the cause of African American civil rights. Their company mission statement read:
We shall concentrate on works by and about Negroes, first, because we ourselves are Negroes, participants in and recorders of the struggles of our people for dignity and equality. Second, because of our intimate knowledge of the epic nature of our existence—from the battles of winning our daily bread to the skirmishes for acceptance in high places—we know that these struggles seldom are presented with honesty and integrity by the major publishing houses, even in books by authors who are perceptive and brave enough to put truth on paper. … It is our aim, through Path Press, to usher in a renaissance in Negro literature. (qtd. in Joyce, Gatekeepers 87-88)
With an initial investment of ten thousand dollars, Path Press began as the complement to Gilbert and Johnson’s on-the-ground political work; according to Johnson, the name they selected for their new venture referred to the idea of “beating a path to the book buyer’s door” (“Book”; Johnson, Personal). As its name suggests, Path wanted to make new titles in African American literature available to readers in their own communities, even if doing so required bypassing mainstream production and distribution channels.
During its initial run, Path published in 1969 Gilbert’s first novel, The Uncertain Sound, and acclaimed Chicago social realist Frank London Brown’s The Myth Makers. Historical novels about African American life in Illinois under Jim Crow segregation, the two books were somewhat dated for the period, throw- backs to Richard Wright-influenced protest writing of the 1940s. Brown actually had died from leukemia in 1962, so it was no surprise that The Myth Makers—his second novel following the success of Trumbull Park (1959)—had the feel of a posthumous work, a book from and for another time. Gilbert’s writing, meanwhile, could not be mistaken for that of a nationalist or a revolutionary. The Uncertain Sound’s plodding deliberateness was completely out of step with Black Arts’ privileging of improvisation and immediacy. Thus, even with Brown’s name recognition, neither book made much of an impression in the market for African American literature. While Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press, coming out of Detroit, and Don L. Lee’s Third World Press, also based in Chicago, enjoyed success as the leading independent, black-owned publishing houses at the turn of the decade, Path Press was forced to close only a few years after its debut, in no small part because its two titles failed to find an audience.
When Path Press relaunched (as a new corporation but bearing the same name) in 1982, Black Arts and Black Power had come and gone, and the time seemed ripe for the co-founders to build on what they had established over ten years earlier. Crucially, from 1981 to 1982, Gilbert had gained valuable insight into national politics in his capacity as administrative assistant and chief of staff to African American US Representative Gus Savage. A well-known former news- paperman in Chicago, Savage was another old friend from the Roosevelt circle; his election to the House in 1980 marked a high point in black electoral participation throughout the city. Although Gilbert worked for Savage for only a brief period, their longstanding friendship inspired the author to renew his commitment to writing. Indeed, as early as 1976, in the wake of an especially acute nationwide recession, Savage encouraged Gilbert to think about the struggle against racial inequality in terms of achieving a genuine “economic democracy.” Consequently, interracial coalition-building around macroeconomic problems relating to poverty and unemployment formed the core of Gilbert’s manuscript in progress (“Should” 4-6). By the time Savage won his seat, The Negotiations’ protagonist bore some resemblance, in demeanor and profession, to the ex-jour- nalist and progressive intellectual. It would not have been lost on the author that Savage’s very success held out the promise of changing the system from within. His manuscript thus courted the idea of partition only to suggest how the poten- tial for, rather than realization of, such a thing would encourage white and black people to set aside their differences and devise progressive alternatives to the sta- tus quo. Forged out of Gilbert’s relationship with Savage, this hybrid investment in nationalist sentiment and institutional politics made The Negotiations a unique product of its time and compositional location.4
The novel’s straightforward plot elapses over the course of three months in 1987. It begins with the 1 September results of a referendum open only to African Americans, who have authorized a body known as the Black American Council “to negotiate with the United States of America for the creation of a sep- arate and independent state, within the continental limits of the United States, for American citizens of African descent” (ix).5 A complex computer program iden- tifies the leader of the Council. He is Preston Simmons, a Chicago newspaperman and public intellectual whose knack for backroom negotiating allows him to mediate between the body’s six other members. Each of these members repre- sents a faction of black politics, from the economically conservative Urban League to the moderate NAACP to the radical arm of black nationalism. Against this backdrop, Gilbert’s title gradually reveals itself to have a double meaning: Simmons must negotiate not only with the federal government (a stand-in for “white America”) but also across the spectrum of black political interests to foster a united front on how to achieve a separate nation within a nation. The novel’s real drama, in fact, could be said to emerge from in-group rivalries, not a clash between whites and blacks. Perhaps it is for this reason that the novel’s underwhelming denouement consists of an embattled Council allying itself with the AFL-CIO so as to create a third way, the Peoples [sic] Party, that would be able to challenge the president in the upcoming election. Thus, despite its radical premise, The Negotiations ultimately is about just that: the occasionally contentious but usually mind-numbing and boring work of negotiating the terrain of competing political interests. The narrative is, in essence, a perfectly Habermasian illustration of the possibility for rational compromise.
From a publishing standpoint, Path Press took a risk by pegging its relaunch on this book, given its length, its relatively obscure author, and its winding descriptions of bureaucratic machinations. Gilbert never quite shook off his pro- test writing inclinations, which is why The Negotiations’ tone is primarily didactic. Long, uninterrupted passages of dialogue are devoted to hashing out compro- mises in the minutest of detail. Preston’s interior monologue, a device often reserved for dramatic insight or contradiction, is here interrupted by cross-referenced tidbits from journal and newspaper articles, as if we were read- ing a roll of microfiche. Even the larger significance of the referendum is uttered in less than elegant fashion. “Maybe separation was not a desirable philosophy, nor a viable strategy,” muses Dr. Benjamin P. Patten, the council member repre- senting the National Baptist Convention and a rather unconvincing stand-in for Dr. King, “but it was a sound tactic. By pushing it, we showed all Americans the level of black discontent and made it possible for progressive white forces to join with blacks to advance democracy” (347). Gilbert may have held dialogue and negotiation as important political strategies, but his writing struggled to convey that point in a manner less than patently obvious.
Despite these shortcomings, Gilbert did try to spice up the narrative by graft- ing an array of generic codes to the trunk of his didactic fiction. Many of these codes are linked to the different political interests represented on the Council. Tellingly, Preston’s rational negotiation of those competing interests is conveyed in bourgeois-realist terms, allowing for maximal readerly identification. Other characters are framed by more sensationalistic literary modes. For example, the Council’s nonseparatist leader, black capitalist James P. Sneed, undertakes sabotage maneuvers that recall the dastardly intentions of an espionage villain. The militant Sam Muhammed, meanwhile, delivers a message from beyond the grave in a twist befitting a murder mystery or political thriller. Finally, Hilda Larsen, the white president of the National Organization of Women, seals her alliance with Preston in a lovemaking scene—“He kissed her harder and harder, consuming her lips” (285)—that is equal parts bodice-ripping romance and male-oriented pornography. Generic variation of this sort meant that The Negotiations could not be read solely as protest or propaganda. However, that fact only raised the question of what kind of book this was or intended to be: serious literature or trashy potboiler, political allegory or mere entertainment. The narrative by itself did not seem to know its audience.
My sense is that, benefiting from a mixture of calculation and sheer good luck, the book’s deficiencies were muted by its uncanny alignment with the political climate of the time. Conditions for the novel’s receptive coherence had been established just one month before its release. In April 1983, US Representative Harold Washington became the first African American mayor of Chicago. This was a practical and symbolic achievement of some consequence. Washington had won the race’s Democratic primary over incumbent Jane Byrne in February, but he faced an even stiffer challenge from Republican Bernard Epton in the general election. Going up against entrenched racism in the city’s political structure—which, despite a clear Democratic tilt, saw whites and prom- inent Democratic aldermen and alderwomen favor Epton—the hard-fought cam- paign to elect Washington succeeded thanks in large part to voter drives among poor and working-class African Americans and Latina/os. Washington was yet another friend from the Roosevelt circle, and his victory (by no means guaranteed when the book was in production) no doubt underscored the view that The Negotiations was a novel utterly of its moment. Just as Preston shuttles between Chicago and Washington, DC, throughout the narrative, drawing political acumen from each location, Washington’s victory threaded local and national political concerns into a narrative of what seemed to be genuine racial progress.
Washington’s overcoming the odds to win the Chicago mayor’s race gave readers sufficient reason to purchase copies of the expensive although oddly spot-on book. In this context, The Negotiations’ protagonist took on added significance as a convincing stand-in for the ideals and progressive alliances Washington himself represented. Reflecting on the rise to prominence of his old friend, Gilbert said:
He typified Blackness beyond his Blackness, if you were defining Blackness from the Black nationalist perspective. Yet, he was not a Black nationalist. Harold was a Democrat who believed in ethnic cooperation. To the day he died, he was willing and trying to meet white people more than half way if they were willing to make any movement toward progress. (qtd. in Travis 283)
Gilbert further observed that Washington, like Preston, was adroit at negotiating between competing interests in order to bring about genuine social change:
[Harold] could sit down and argue with the intellectuals. He could talk to the prag- matists. He could talk to the visionaries and the dreamers, and hold his own in each category. But when he got ready, and the time came to do something, he could. . . . He was one of the few people that I’ve met in my 60-plus years who was a visionary, a theorist, a strategist and an activist, all with about equal ability. (284)
An institutional mover and shaker who was proudly black, a man who was cere- bral yet committed to social justice, Washington, for Gilbert, epitomized the kind of leader who would be able to gather different voices together under the umbrella of a new progressive politics. In this way, Washington’s election fortuitously lent receptive coherence to The Negotiations’ otherwise disparate generic influences.
Because the new mayor had garnered national media attention, Path Press seized the historic occasion to venture a promotion strategy for the book that would appeal to a readership beyond its reliable Chicago base. In Path’s first press release, Johnson framed the 27 May 1983 publication of Gilbert’s novel in this way: “The recent Chicago mayoralty campaign, with its polarization along racial lines, has catapulted the question of black political activity into a national issue. This issue has been further intensified by the call of some black leaders for a black pres- idential candidate in 1984” (Johnson, Press). The exact wording of this release would pay off in a big way. In November, just a few months after the book’s publi- cation, Jesse Jackson, the civil rights icon with strong personal and political ties to Chicago, announced he would seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for the right to challenge the incumbent Ronald Reagan for the presidency in 1984. This second electoral coincidence not only opened up new doors for Path Press to knock on in terms of media coverage but also aligned, once again, with the nar- rative’s insistence on the value of institutional politics for African American self- determination. The outspoken Jackson, after all, had yet to compete in the Democratic primaries, which stood in the way of his securing the nomination.
Over the next several months, into 1984, the groundswell of support for Jackson’s candidacy lent further receptive coherence to the book. Under the ban- ner of the Rainbow Coalition, which recalled slain Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton’s political alliance of the same name, Jackson’s campaign aimed to bring together previously factionalized groups on a local and national scale. Casting a wide net, the populist Coalition sought to unite blacks, Latina/os, women, sexual minorities, young people, and the poor in an effort to change the political system from within. Jackson’s mobilization of voters historically locked out of the process of institutional brokering “constituted an ‘insider’ inde- pendent strategy to exert progressive political influence within the Democratic party” (Gurin, Hatchett, and Jackson 254). This strategy reflected the fictional Dr. Patten’s account of the value inherent in the referendum: in both cases reach- ing for what seems to be impossible puts pressure on nominal allies to consider progressive alternatives. Jackson’s primary challenge was not successful, ulti- mately, but the Rainbow Coalition did inspire ordinary Americans to take the pro- gressive alternative seriously. Readers of The Negotiations, meanwhile, could take at least imaginative solace in the Council’s alliance with labor and women’s groups at the end of the novel. One of Gilbert’s concluding tableaus shows Preston and Hilda holding hands in front of supporters at a rally.
If, as Fredric Jameson notes, genres “are essentially literary institutions, or social contracts, between a writer and a specific public, whose function is to specify the proper use of a particular cultural artifact” (106), then The Negotiations presents a unique case study in how the reading public itself must be primed somehow to apprehend a work’s generic codes, which is to say its social relevance. Caught between a rigid didacticism and minimal gestures to popular entertainment, the text of Gilbert’s novel, taken alone, loses sight of its readerly function. However, because its publication—by design and by chance—coincided with historic events in the exact cultural field that The Negotiations takes as its narrative impetus, the book actually gained a use-value that made identifying its social relevance much easier. The happy alignment of textual with contextual meaning helped this work become a minor commercial success among black readers in its time.
The Future is Now
If alignment describes The Negotiations’ contextualized relation to the black polit- ical sphere, then another term, prescience, describes the internal logic by which the novel shaped how readers viewed their political situation. The Negotiations’ prescience was a function of a specific generic mode: speculative fiction. Bearing the subtitle A Novel of Tomorrow, the narrative’s premise involved read- ers in a fantasy scenario that tacitly criticized the real-life President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. With the narrative set in the not too distant future, in 1987, Reagan is cast as a one-term president whose conservative social and eco- nomic policies laid the groundwork for the referendum. Early on in the novel, during a typically loquacious press conference, Preston conjectures that, under Reaganomics, “Black unemployment became sky-high and black business failures reached record proportions” (32). Reagan’s domestic policies proved disastrous, gutting the national economy and exacerbating racial and class inequalities in the process. The problem in 1987, then, is that even the new Democratic presi- dent, a man by the name of Dorsey Talbott Davidson, has fallen in line with Reaganomics. A Democrat won the last election, Preston avers, “because a major- ity of the voters in 1984 rejected a continuation of Reagan’s style rather than his philosophy” (32), which remains intact. Because President Davidson funda- mentally subscribes to that “philosophy,” Preston feels secure in saying that the country, as far as blacks are concerned, is “going to hell” (33).
The Negotiations’ setting in the near future allows the narrative to make important claims on the present. By narrativizing a retrospective account of the political climate of 1983, Gilbert strategically combines speculation with pres- ent-day critique, fashioning a notion of what is to come if the crisis of the status quo persists. In this sense, prescience asks the reader to reject the conservative socioeconomic policies that define the here and now. Gilbert could not have known for certain whether Reagan would win reelection. Even so, Gilbert’s sug- gestion is that, regardless of the person in charge, the policies that have defined Reagan’s time in office need to be left behind. This definition of prescience might be conceived as a strategy of prophetic realism whereby the author’s prediction for the future has a direct bearing on the reader’s present-day assessment of his or her circumstances. Put differently, if campaign biographies are timed to cast the most favorable light on candidates running for office, then The Negotiations is sort of an anti-campaign biography, arguing, in fictional terms, against the reelec- tion of someone whose policies have failed minorities and the working class. Fellow black novelist John Oliver Killens affirmed Gilbert’s prophetic realist bent in his admiring blurb for the book, which Path used in its promotional materials: “THE NEGOTIATIONS is indeed a novel of Tomorrow. It is timely, daring and even revolutionary; it is powerfully absorbing and artistic.” Gilbert, he wrote, “has a vision for the country that could be its saving grace, if the country would only pay attention.”
Killens’s endorsement of the novel did not stand alone. In fact most reviewers of The Negotiations explicitly condemned Reagan for his indifference to growing racial and class inequalities in the country. Gwen McKinney, writing for the com- munity newspaper Chicago Good-Times, lauded Gilbert because, in her words, his “perspective is visionary, the thrust revolutionary”—an apt description of the motivation behind prophetic realism. In pointing to his “purposeful arrangement of time and circumstances,” McKinney argued that Gilbert’s narrative encouraged readers to reflect on how “the Reagan administration has imposed a state of conditions that strips all illusions, crudely illustrating the economic and social atrocities plaguing Blacks, the poor and working people in general.” As such, she identified The Negotiations’ futurism not with mere whim or fancy but with a vision of “probable reality.”6 Writing in the Republican-leaning Chicago Tribune, reviewer Leanita McClain also pointed to Reagan’s presidency as the necessary backdrop to the novel’s meaning. She contended that the administra- tion’s rollback of civil rights initiatives had given rise to the “disenchantment that fuels the plot.” Although McClain was less sure than McKinney that the novel had succeeded on its own terms, claiming it propelled “genuine sentiments to an implausible conclusion,” she noted the reader could not “quarrel . . . with [its] perception of those sentiments.”
Even when reviewers found fault with Gilbert’s narrative or prose style, they were always clear about their support for The Negotiations’ speculative-realist turn. Writing in The Black Collegian, Kuumba Kazi-Ferrouillet justly took Gilbert to task for his clumsy stereotyping of characters: for example, Sam, the nationalist, is “impulsive, loud, prone to violence”; Hilda, the white female liberal, is “big bosomed, sexually insatiable”; and the black feminist on the Council, Rubye Ransome, is “flirtatious, big-hipped, matriarchal.” Yet Kazi-Ferrouillet’s objection to these types as distinct markers of generic variation is tempered by the claim that they “lend to [its] believability and [give] the reader familiar ref- erence points without diluting the strength of the exciting turn of events which propel the action forward.” For Kazi-Ferrouillet, then, The Negotiations’ reliance on ham-fisted character types in subplots about “secret sexual liaisons, political intrigue, [and] murder” actually made it fun to read—“a good story” instead of a boring or simplistic one. Less forgiving was Alice Hornbaker, who reviewed the book in the Cincinnati Enquirer. She took direct issue with Gilbert’s didactic tone. Left exhausted by the novel’s “preachy passages,” Hornbaker likened the stilted dialogue to the experience of listening to “professors of history telling students lessons they must learn—or else.” She continued, “many times the reader feels manipulated into hearing again and again an unending litany of blacks’ grievances.” Despite this criticism, Hornbaker assigned The Negotiations an improb- able four out of five stars. In the reviewer’s estimation, Gilbert’s depiction of post- civil rights grievances hewed to a “logic” that ultimately “intrigues and educates.” For all the book’s textual missteps, then, the review conceded that Gilbert did readers a service by forcing them to ask, “Could it happen?”
Boosted by African Americans’ growing dissatisfaction with Reagan’s policies—the “genuine sentiments” and “grievances” to which McClain and Hornbaker attested—Chicago’s black political class was unequivocal in hailing the prescience of Path Press’s new book. Gilbert and Johnson’s network of con- tacts, fostered over decades of political activism in the city, came in handy as the novel made its debut. In a series of what Path called book or autograph parties, local African American luminaries were invited to publicly celebrate Gilbert’s lit- erary achievement. The first party took place in mid-May at boxer Muhammad Ali’s stately Chicago mansion and was organized by two community leaders from the South Side: Marian Humes, an alderwoman, and Wanda Sharrieff, president of the International Women’s Economic Development Corporation (“Promotion”). The 5 June party at Vinzant’s Restaurant was equally illustrious and festive, hosted as it was by the author’s “close friend, co-freedom fighter and thought tester . . . for 25 years,” Gus Savage. Backed by the politicians in atten- dance, including the state’s comptroller and future US senator Roland Burris, Johnson felt confident enough to tout, “Because of the scope and subject matter of the book, we look upon ‘The Negotiations’ as representing as much a political event as a literary one” (“Savage”).
These site-specific book parties proved to be a model for the kind of face-to- face and dialogue-friendly promotion Path Press wanted to deploy around the novel. Exposed to the book as an “event,” potential buyers could commiserate about real-time social and political issues through the displaced speculative dis- course of The Negotiations’ narrative time. The book party thus became a de facto space of prophetic realism, wherein living, breathing progressives could be drawn together by the novel’s prospective glance at their wished-for success. What is more, because any given party set the stage for an autograph session during which copies of the book could be sold, sales and promotion went hand in hand with genuine political dialogue. Although the company did have an agreement with Chicago Review Press to conduct this side of its business, the latter could not provide what was essential to selling The Negotiations—namely, a means of tapping into discourse about society, culture, and politics that was specific to African American communities and middle-class readers in particular. Aiming to expand their distribution beyond Chicago, Gilbert and Johnson began to stage more events such as these, not only for politicians and civic leaders but also among ordinary readers who thought the novel had something important to say.
In a matter of weeks, Gilbert was traveling around the greater Chicago area to promotional book parties for The Negotiations. By the middle of the fall, he was doing the same across the greater Midwest (with side trips to New York and Washington, DC), from Oklahoma City and St. Louis to Cincinnati and Detroit. Several months after Path began coordinating these community-wide events, Gilbert admitted to an associate, “The mainstay of our promotional thrust . . . has been the holding of autograph parties” (Gilbert to Tobiason). They had been so popular, in fact, that Johnson devised a plan that would incentivize hosting the author’s forays into the community, effectively turning ordinary readers into on-the-ground distributors:
(1) We contact a friend or an interested party and ask them to host a book party.
(2) The person provides the mailing list and the refreshment in most cases.
(3) If the host does the mailing and calling to get people to the book party, we offer them a percentage of the gross sometimes.
(4) The percentage of the gross sales offered is twenty-five percent if the host
does all of the mailing and handles the refreshments.
(5) If the host underwrites the mailing or the refreshments, the commission is fifteen percent (15%). If the host pays for neither the mailing nor the refreshments, we sometimes offer them ten percent (10%). (Johnson to Roberts)
The firm’s preference, observed Johnson, was always to get “as many people [to] handle these book parties without any compensation” although “in about forty percent of the cases [Path] provided some form of compensation” (Johnson to Roberts). This outline of an organic, party-driven distribution network effectively supplanted the strategy Chicago Review had put together for the book. Now independent agents could beat a direct path to legions of readers’ doors.
The itinerary for Gilbert’s trip to Cleveland, Ohio, reveals how Path Press relied on contacts, social networks, and media outlets in the black community to gen- erate buzz about the book. On the first day of a busy two-day trip, 20-21 November 1983, Gilbert was celebrated at the main event: an autograph party at the Cleveland Heights residence of architect and urban planner Joyce Whitley. A pillar of the black community, Whitley ran a successful architectural firm with her brothers and had served as chief planner for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development in the late 1960s (“Whitley”). Owing in part to Whitley’s reputation, the soiree was covered by local news media, with the author giving interviews to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, the ABC television affiliate, and the city’s African American newspaper, the Call and Post. Before and after the party, Gilbert was the guest on radio talk shows that addressed issues in the black community. Between them—on WZAK with Gayle Philpott and on WERE with Cheryle Wills—his voice was broadcast across AM and FM frequencies. The next day, he had two speaking engagements: one at Shaker Heights High School and the other at Cuyahoga Community College (Gilbert, Itinerary). Gilbert’s host at the latter was James C. Kilgore, an African American professor and poet who had published in Phylon and Negro Digest (“James”). Gilbert’s lectures in front of students likely echoed what he had told the Call and Post the previous night: “I am not a separatist, but I have sense enough to know if black and white Americans can’t find some basis for parity and equality, it would be better to sep- arate than to live in eternal inequality” (Wood).
At the height of The Negotiations’ media coverage, in the winter of 1983, Gilbert taped an episode of Tony Brown’s Journal, the syndicated television talk show featuring interviews with black newsmakers. This was a special platform: it guaranteed a national audience of prospective readers while remaining grounded in African American social and cultural networks. The episode subse- quently aired in December. In “Should Blacks Separate from the U.S.?” host Tony Brown introduced The Negotiations with a swipe at President Reagan: “[T]he frustrations of a conservative era and the seeming inability to close the economic gap with Whites are real.” Brown then asked his audience, “Can an ultimate break in faith with the American dream for the nation’s thirty million citizens of African descent become a reality[?]” The speculative remark was a fitting distillation of the author’s pitch to prospective readers. Brown was no radical himself, but he was won over by Gilbert’s reasonableness in describing The Negotiations’ rele- vance: “[A]fter the realities of the immediate present [have] altered the present expectations and the present illusions, I believe that Blacks will have to start making extraordinary demands, novel demands…on White America.” The interview went swimmingly, and Brown even made sure to underscore his appre- ciation for the novel’s generic variation—namely, its subplot with Sam the nationalist, its “charming” white female sexpot Hilda, and its command of literary “suspense.” As for Gilbert’s prophetic realism, Brown only had flattering things to say. “I forgot I was reading a novel,” he confessed, gesturing to the idea that the book could be understood as a perfectly aligned roman a` clef. Brown continued: “I would slip and I said, now that certainly sounds like such and such. A certain national leader that we may or may not know today” (“Should”).
Toward the end of the show, Gilbert hinted at the marketing angle that would help The Negotiations reach a wide national readership. Without identifying Chicago Review Press by name, he complained that a “[w]hite distributor” was “not pushing this particular book with the . . . dedication that [he] would want them to push it.” Brown worried that, given what his contacts in the publishing industry had told him, “Black people don’t buy books written by Black people.” Gilbert denied the claim, positing instead, “It’s just a matter of finding who the Black readers are. Because Americans period don’t read books like other people. So it’s a matter of setting up your distribution strategy in a way that you can ferret out, so to speak, those Black readers” (“Should”). After the taping, Brown came around and embraced this vision in his syndicated newspaper column, a follow- up mouthpiece for the show. There he touted the Pathway Plan, a marketing strat- egy that, in his words, “makes use of all of the organizations in the Black community for autograph parties and publicity.” The company may have used “unconventional methods” (Brown) to shrink the distance between producer and consumer, but Brown at least recognized that a serious effort was put forth to engage with the African American reading public on its own terms.
The Horizon of Reception
As successful as The Negotiations’ autograph parties were, Gilbert and Johnson grasped that the work itself had to be packaged differently in order to reach a mass reading public. In particular, it became clear that the book’s hardcover form made it inaccessible to wide swaths of the black community. Priced at $14.95 per copy, The Negotiations had a cost barrier that only certain readers—those in the middle to upper classes—would even try to surmount. The book itself was sturdy and durable, something one might be proud to put on one’s shelf. However, that sense of permanence identified the book as a minor luxury that many people could not afford. Beyond the issue of cost, there were times when The Negotiations physically could not be placed into the hands of nonbourgeois read- ers. For example, in March 1984, the company received a letter from an inmate at the Marion Federal Penitentiary in Illinois. Andrew Ingram El talked about seeing Gilbert on Tony Brown’s Journal and submitted a humble request to receive a complimentary copy of his novel. Although quite willing to mail the inmate a free copy of the book, Path discovered that it could not do so, as the facility allowed prisoners to receive only paperback books. Despite the setback, a hopeful Ingram El wrote that getting to read The Negotiations in paperback would be “worth the wait (smile).” Correspondence such as this underlined the fact that its handsome binding was The Negotiations’ own worst obstacle on the path to the reader’s doorstep.
To their credit, Gilbert and Johnson had comprehended this limitation early on. Soon after the book came out, in May 1983, each began to send inquiries to New York-based agents, editors, and publishers who might either represent or pick up the rights to reprint the novel in cheaper and more portable paperback editions. In letters to the paperback houses Pocket and Ballantine, Johnson pushed the novel’s “controversial nature” and stressed “the fast-paced manner in which it is written” (Johnson to Pocket). He hoped either press could turn The Negotiations into mass-market airport reading. Even more, Johnson claimed that the book had “outstanding subsidiary rights potential” (Johnson to Wyatt)— the idea being that paperback publication would lead to a movie or television deal. While neither firm apparently responded to Johnson’s pitch, a comparable house, Bantam, did. In that letter, however, Senior Editor Peter Guzzardi let Johnson down delicately, saying, “My own opinion is [the novel] is less successful as pure entertainment, which is all-important to its mass-market potential.” Far from stating a contrary opinion, Guzzardi seemed to voice the editors’ consensus on the book. In fact, no one at a major agency or company replied favorably to Path’s letter of inquiry. This non-response left The Negotiations in a kind of limbo: unable to cross over into a more accessible medium, the nar- rative as such could not be promoted as something other than a fiction of limited appeal.
Importantly, the very thing African American readers managed to read around, so to speak—that is, the novel’s didactic tone—became the object of agents’, editors’, and publishers’ strong criticism of the work. Vice President of Burrell Advertising Sharon A. Morgan-Miller began her response with “[t]he prologue is enthralling” and proceeded to her qualification: “But . . . the book doesn’t follow all the way through. The writing at times was sophomoric and labo- rious, especially in the description of mundane things. It didn’t move like I thought it would. After the prologue, I was really prepared to be excited to the end. I wasn’t.” Legendary New York literary agent Scott Meredith offered a much harsher valuation of The Negotiations’ literary quality in a comprehensive six- page report. Path had asked Meredith (who was adept at securing movie deals for authors) to consider representing the book’s subsidiary rights, but he rejected the approach with this rather brutal assessment: the book “suffers from so many problems of conceptualization and structure that we [the agency] do not see it as any kind of mass market or media tie-in possibility (and in fact we couldn’t have sold this for you in trade hardcover).” As far as Gilbert’s style was concerned, Meredith found it lacking, to say the least: “The novel is rhetorical and pedantic; the characters posture and speechify rather than genuinely relate to one another[;] and most of these characters (excluding Simmons who is more or less a filter or conveyance) are simply mouthpieces for you [the author] to promote your ideas.” In short, Meredith could not lend his support, and while his words may have stung, his opinion was representative of the broader literary market- place’s assessment of the novel. Within a year of publication, it had become clear The Negotiations would have to be distributed in its extant form by Path alone.
Undaunted by that major setback, Gilbert and Johnson turned their attention to a different medium. They spent the next decade or so trying to adapt The Negotiations into a feature-length film. Steadfast in their belief that the novel had box office potential, they first sent inquiries to notable producers of color—namely, the actor and comedian Richard Pryor (Johnson to Pryor and Brown) and professional football players cum blaxploitation leading men, Fred Williamson (Rouselle) and James Brown (Johnson to Brown).When the initial inquiries did not garner any response, Path reverted to what it knew best: the independent route. Chicago-based Lake Shore Productions and Financial Marketing Communications drew up a budget for the film, which they estimated would top the three million dollar mark if shot on a seventy-day schedule (Johnson to Jones). Path also commissioned a screenplay by local writer Lenwood Robinson, Jr. Unfortunately, without any screenwriting experience, the script he eventually submitted—a bloated, dialogue-heavy 177 pages— shared the novel’s Achilles heel: wordiness (Robinson). The movie project dragged on for months with little to show for all the planning. Finally, in 1986, having sat on the script for a couple of years, Gilbert was desperate enough to kick-start investment in the film by offering both Danny Glover and James Earl Jones—unbeknownst to each other—the lead role of Preston Simmons (Gilbert to Glover; Gilbert to Jones). Neither took the bait.
During this period, Gilbert continued to promote his novel as best he could. The book parties and media spots had dried up, but appearances at libraries, bookstores, and local schools and colleges were not infrequent—after all, he was still a published author. It could not be denied, however, that the times were speedily passing Gilbert and Johnson by. As 1987, the Orwellian year of the novel’s setting, came and went, The Negotiations no longer aligned with real-time politics and, perhaps more important, no longer seemed prophetic in any way. Indeed, Ronald Reagan was in the midst of serving a second term in office following his landslide defeat of Democratic nominee Walter Mondale in the 1984 election. The conservative victory that year rebutted Gilbert and Johnson’s ideals insofar as it symbolized, for many, the death knell of progressive coalitional pol- itics that had its roots in the New Deal. White backlash and neoliberal socioeco- nomic policies were the new norm, dashing The Negotiations’ dream of a civil rights and labor alliance. Add to this Jesse Jackson’s anti-Semitic remarks, which torpedoed his presidential run and the Rainbow Coalition, and Harold Washington’s untimely death in November of 1987, and it seemed pretty clear that the entire thrust of the novel was irrelevant. On the cusp of the new decade, the book felt like a relic of a bygone era.
There was one last stand to be made, however. Against the tide of history, in 1991, that ever elusive goal of crossing over, of bringing Gilbert’s message to the masses, seemed to be at hand. That year Greenlight Films, a black-run production company based in New York, optioned to make a screen adaptation of The Negotiations. A contract was drawn up in September, and the author earned five thousand dollars for the option (Jones). Greenlight’s founder, Clarence B. Jones, was a friend of Johnson’s and so had a personal connection to Path. A former speechwriter for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and previous co-owner of the New York Amsterdam News, Jones was a well-regarded figure in African American media circles. Jones gave Path a real glimmer of hope almost ten years after the original publication of The Negotiations.
Sadly, Greenlight itself turned out to be a short-lived enterprise. Notwith- standing Jones’s admirable intentions to fund African American films, there is little to suggest that anything was accomplished in the two years the company worked on The Negotiations. In fact, none of Greenlight’s projects ever made it to the big screen. It is unclear what might have stymied or prevented Jones’s prog- ress. It is probably safe to assume, however, that in an era when the genre of the so-called “hood” movie became synonymous with racial representation in Holly- wood and in independent cinema,7 Greenlight had little chance of success. The film option was abandoned, and both companies would fold in a matter of years. To the best of my knowledge, any records we have for Greenlight Films share a home with those for Path Press.
The decade long failure to convert The Negotiations into accessible commodity forms follows what Raymond Williams has described as the process by which “manifest commercial modes of control and selection” exert their influence on cultural production. The effect of such commercialism, he writes, can be appre- hended at the moment when small-scale cultural products are either picked up or not picked up by mass media. He elaborates:
This is especially clear in the later stages of the market when the relatively simple relations of speculative production [say, by an independent] have been joined and in many areas replaced by planned marketing operations in which certain types of work are positively promoted, of course with the corollary that other types are left at best to make their own way. This effect has been most noticeable, for obvious rea- sons, in the most highly capitalized forms of production. It is the real history of the modern popular newspaper, of the commercial cinema, of the record industry, of art reproduction, and, increasingly, of the paperback book. (104)
To be sure, Path Press’s gamble on an in-house manuscript paid off thanks in large part to the receptive coherence of the literary text with its immediate social and political context. However, as Williams points out, such “speculative produc- tion” typically cannot operate on a broader, more integrated, “highly capitalized” economy of scale. The Negotiations, it might be said, had relied too much on con- textual meaning for it to be successful beyond the time and place of its initial pro- duction. Without built-in market assurances—which, for paperbacks and movies alike, amount to well-established generic codes—Gilbert’s novel was inadaptable to wide-ranging economies of scale.
Today, The Negotiations is out of print, a forgotten work in the African American literary tradition,8 while Gilbert goes unmentioned in even the most comprehensive surveys of contemporary black writing. Path Press became obso- lete over the same decade in which African American literary studies achieved institutionalization. Despite these circumstances, my point in recovering The Negotiations from obscurity is not to contend that it merits inclusion in our syl- labi, deserves to be the focus of a special issue, or passes muster alongside Ernest J. Gaines’s A Gathering of Old Men and John Edgar Wideman’s Sent for You Yesterday, two other books from 1983. It is to point out, rather, that there was a certain inevitability to its trajectory. What the Path Press Archives reveal in exhaustive detail is that The Negotiations’ narrative dependence on a specific time and place made it susceptible to obsolescence once those conditions altered in the slightest degree. The novel, in other words, was successful only to the extent that readers had been primed to see its social and political relevance, which was syn- onymous with its literary art. Gilbert’s book was bound to its horizon of reception, and in many respects, the field within that horizon (not beyond it) is where The Negotiations is best understood.
Some might object to reading the novel only up to its receptive limit. I prefer to see this archival orientation as dwelling on that which made The Negotiations a special marker of black Chicago’s time in the political limelight. Archival records demonstrate that the novel’s positive reception depended on commu- nity-specific responses to Harold Washington’s mayoral election, Jesse Jackson’s run for president, and Ronald Reagan’s bid for reelection. Whatever deficiencies it may have had, the novel spoke to these events in a powerful way. When those textual-contextual conjunctures could not be replicated outside the black community and beyond the campaign cycles of 1983 and 1984, it was an indication that the feelings of possibility generated by and reflected in the novel may have simply run their course. Like the flash of a streaking comet, the book was something luminous, and only so for a blink of the eye. The Negotiations’ horizon of reception—the reason why it is not, and need not be, read today—thus marks not only its failure to cross over but also its brilliant, fleeting achievement: an impassioned response to African American electoral politics in its time.
I have made the case that The Negotiations is critically legible only in light of what the Path Press Archives in the Woodson Regional Library can tell us about its ephemeral appeal in the early 1980s. It is to this repository of knowledge, rather than to something strictly inherent in the book, that I have directed my attention in this essay. By taking this approach, I have obviated the need, which can feel like an overwhelming pressure, to legitimate Gilbert’s obscure, out-of-print novel for the sake of literary significance. What I hope to achieve instead is to generate a concrete account of a transitory yet intensely felt social reading practice. While tracing The Negotiations’ lostness in the archive does not reclaim the text as such for contemporary literary study, it does enlarge and deepen our understanding of African American literary culture. In its failure to cross over, the book’s textual absence reveals much about the people who actually made it work for a time. This is the value of recalling Gilbert’s forgotten novel.
As The Negotiations fades from view in the practice of archival discovery I have modeled in this essay, the scholarly follow-up to Amiable with Big Teeth’s discov- ery has ensured that McKay’s novel will only be valued on canon-conserving terms, at least for the time being. In the 2013 essay “Amiable with Big Teeth: The Case of Claude McKay’s Last Novel,” Jean-Christophe Cloutier promises to deliver “the first sustained literary reading” of the typescript he found in 2009. Unsurprisingly, Cloutier’s analysis has much to say about the archive—except that, for him, the archive means almost anything but the actual repository in which he found the typescript. Hardly pausing to dwell on that archive, Cloutier speaks of Amiable’s “archival sensibility,” one that is supposed to have been “shaped by [McKay’s] ideals of black self-reliance rather than by a strict adherence to historical truth” (558). For Cloutier, “the archive [as ren- dered textually] is not solely a positivist repository of facts that then become history, but rather a source of clues that can position the reader in an empowered relation to past and future, lending itself to aesthetic interpretation.” He thereby concludes that, in the novel’s heroically “counterarchival” stance toward history, we see how “McKay appropriates for himself, and in the service of his commu- nity, the strategies usually reserved for institutional or imperial governance” (572).
As consequential as all of this sounds, with the very fate of “black self-reliance” (558) seeming to hang in the analytical balance, the fact is that Cloutier’s notion of an archival sensibility amounts to nothing more than McKay’s “fabricating the facts” (568) in Amiable’s fictional portrait of Harlem in 1936. Indeed, the entire thrust of Cloutier’s argument pivots on the idea that McKay fudges, alters, or revises “facts” about historical events in order to compose a more freewheeling and radical account of African American life than the truth would allow. As far as I am concerned, however, this practice is simply called writing fiction. Novelists make up things about history all the time—this is arguably their charge—and just because a fictional narrative is set in the (recent) past does not mean it has anything to do with archives. At the level of Cloutier’s dematerialized “sensibility” (558), the concept of the archive is meaningless.
There is in this piece exactly one instance when the actual archive at the center of Cloutier’s research makes a sustained appearance. Tellingly, this instance is relegated to an endnote:
In 2009 I discovered the complete typescript of Amiable with Big Teeth, includ- ing corrections in McKay’s hand, in the Samuel Roth Papers at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The novel has since been suc- cessfully authenticated, and a scholarly edition is forthcoming in 2014. The bound typescript’s unexpected location in the papers of Samuel Roth, the man who was accused of “pirating” Joyce’s Ulysses in the late 1920s in his Two Worlds journal, suggestively links McKay’s fate to that of Joycean modern- ism. (573n6)
Again, for an essay that is ostensibly all about archives, there is a surprising lack of self-awareness in Cloutier’s description of his own archival practice. Beholden to an ideology of textual presence, Cloutier shows very little interest in the actual repository that houses Amiable. When he does mention something specific about Roth (his “pirating” of Joyce), it is only to legitimate the typescript’s inherent lit- erary value (which “links McKay’s fate to that of Joycean modernism”). Roth is thus instrumentalized to bring the lost novel into the orbit of canonical legitima- tion. Even more than McKay’s archival sensibility, it is this claim to legitimacy that Cloutier is anxious to prove throughout the essay, which is why he concludes, “it is truly tragic that Amiable was not published the year it was written—1941, just a year after Richard Wright’s Native Son—as it might have solidified McKay’s status as one of the foremost black prose writers of his day and clarified his ded- ication to his own group” (573). Reflecting Cloutier’s dematerialized archival sen- sibility, this final proposition about Amiable assigns meaning (“truly tragic”) to a dubious counterfactual, a “what if” whose value relies on a narrow comparison to Wright’s best seller.
One wonders: is it really so “unexpected” (573) to have found the typescript in Roth’s papers? Cloutier says nothing else on the matter, which means the question will have to be taken up by another scholar, someone interested in following the traces of Amiable’s lostness in the archive. I hope my own practice of archival discovery models how this and similar kinds of work can be done. Unlike The Negotiations, Amiable with Big Teeth has yet to see the light of day (its expected publication date came and went). Even so, there is a story there about its non- event: how McKay’s typescript made its way to Samuel Roth and why it was never published. That story necessarily will chart new territory in literary history. It will be a story sufficient to itself.
I am grateful to Bennett J. Johnson for meeting with me in Evanston, Illinois, in 2011 and to Martha Biondi for bringing us together. I also thank the MELUS reviewers for their helpful commentary on a draft.
- Thomas Whiteside offers an engaging journalistic account of the revolution in media distribution that led to the rise of “blockbuster” book/movie cross- promotion.
- My reference to dust and overall commentary on attending to the lostness of/in archives is drawn from Carolyn Steedman. She writes that the historian must respect “what is not actually there, with the dead who are not really present in the whispering galleries, with the past that does not, in fact live in the record office, but is rather, gone (that is its point; that is what the past is for)” (81).
- Biographical details presented in these paragraphs are drawn from the online resource “Herman Cromwell Gilbert,” as well as Teresa Puente, Paul Davis, and Bennett J. Johnson (Personal).
- The first version of the novel was completed while the author resided in Washington, DC. I base this claim on the address listed on the title page of the typescript of Gilbert’s The Negotiations: A Novel of Tomorrow.
- The referendum’s margin of success is fifty-two to forty-eight percent, with eighty-five percent of African Americans participating in the vote. All references to the novel are to the published version unless otherwise indicated.
- Although the only surviving version of Gwen McKinney’s review is a typescript, another archival document reveals its likely publication in the local newspaper Good-Times on 29 August 1983. See Gilbert (“Public”).
- On the “hood” cycle of the early 1990s, see S. Craig Watkins (169-95). Among the films that defined the genre are John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (1991), Mario Van Peebles’s New Jack City (1991), and Albert and Allen Hughes’s Menace II Society (1993).
- The novel’s sole appearance in literary scholarship can be found in Richard R. Guzman (147-54). This source is an anthology of African American writing in Chicago, and, as such, it does not attend to the text’s lostness as a condition of its literary significance.
“Book Publishing Firm Wants to Hasten ‘Black Renaissance.’” Chicago Defender 2 Dec. 1969: 4. Print.
Brown, Tony. “Path Press: Pertinent Options.” Baltimore Afro-American 7 Jan. 1984: 4. Print.
Cloutier, Jean-Christophe. “Amiable with Big Teeth: The Case of Claude McKay’s Last Novel.” Modernism/Modernity 20.3 (2013): 557-76. Print.
Davis, Paul. “Herman Gilbert Remembered as Multi-faceted Writer, Thinker.” Chicago Citizen 13 Mar. 1997: 1. Print.
Gilbert, Herman Cromwell. Itinerary for trip to Cleveland, Ohio. N.d. TS. Path Press Archives.
—. Letter to Danny Glover. 25 Feb. 1986. TS. Path Press Archives.
—. Letter to James Earl Jones. 25 Feb. 1986. TS. Path Press Archives.
—. Letter to James Tobiason. 30 Jan. 1984. TS. Path Press Archives.
—. The Negotiations: A Novel of Tomorrow. Chicago: Path, 1983. Print.
—. The Negotiations: A Novel of Tomorrow. N.d. TS. Path Press Archives.
—. “Public Appearance Calendar.” N.d. TS. Path Press Archives.
Gurin, Patricia, Shirley Hatchett, and S. James Jackson. Hope and Independence:
Blacks’ Response to Electoral and Party Politics. New York: Russell Sage, 1989. Print.
Guzman, Richard R., ed. Black Writing from Chicago: In the World, Not of It? Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2006. Print.
Guzzardi, Peter. Letter to Bennett J. Johnson. 15 Apr. 1983. TS. Path Press Archives. “Herman Cromwell Gilbert.” Contemporary Authors Online. Gale Biography in Context. Gale Group, 2 July 2001. Web. 10 May 2012.
Hornbaker, Alice. “Novel of Racial Unrest at Times Preachy, but Intriguing Overall.” Rev. of The Negotiations: A Novel of Tomorrow, by Herman Cromwell Gilbert. Cincinnati Enquirer 17 July 1983: F22. Print.
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“James C. Kilgore.” The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Case Western Reserve University, 17 July 1997. Web. 10 May 2012.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981. Print.
Johnson, Bennett J. Letter to Bob Wyatt. 14 Dec. 1983. TS. Path Press Archives. —. Letter to Clarence B. Jones. 4 June 1984. TS. Path Press Archives.
—. Letter to James Brown. 29 Aug. 1983. TS. Path Press Archives.
—. Letter to Jay Roberts. 5 July 1984. TS. Path Press Archives.
—. Letter to Pocket Books. 14 Dec. 1983. TS. Path Press Archives.
—. Letter to Richard Pryor and Jimmy Brown. 15 July 1983. TS. Path Press Archives. —. Personal interview. 21 May 2011.
—. Press release upon book publication. N.d. TS. Path Press Archives.
Jones, Clarence B. Letter to Bennett J. Johnson. 11 Sept. 1991. TS. Path Press Archives.Joyce, Donald Franklin. Black Book Publishers in the United States: A Historical Dictionary of the Presses, 1817-1990. Westport: Greenwood, 1991. Print.
—. Gatekeepers of Black Culture: Black-Owned Book Publishing in the United States, 1817-1981. Westport: Greenwood, 1983. Print.
Kazi-Ferrouillet, Kuumba. Rev. of The Negotiations: A Novel of Tomorrow, by Herman Cromwell Gilbert. The Black Collegian Jan.-Feb. 1984: 28. Print.
Killens, John Oliver. Letter to Herman C. Gilbert. 28 June 1983. TS. Path Press Archives.
Lee, Felicia R. “New Novel of Harlem Renaissance Is Found.” New York Times 14 Sept. 2012: C1. Print.
McClain, Leanita. “Grains of Truth in Fiction.” Rev. of The Negotiations: A Novel of Tomorrow, by Herman Cromwell Gilbert. Chicago Tribune 2 Jul. 1983: 11. Print.
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Morgan-Miller, Sharon A. Letter to Bennett J. Johnson. 22 June 1983. TS. Path Press Archives.
“Our History.” Roosevelt University, n.d. Web. 10 Sept. 2014.
Path Press Archives. Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American Historyand Literature. Chicago Public Lib., Chicago.
“Promotion Party for Gilbert’s New Novel.” Chicago Metro News 14 May 1983: 1.Print.
Puente, Teresa. “Herman Gilbert, Writer, Political Aide.” Chicago Tribune 9 Mar.1997: 4C. Print.
Robinson, Lenwood, Jr. Screenplay for The Negotiations. N.d. TS. Path Press Archives.
Rouselle, Jeanette. Letter to Fred Williamson. 6 July 1983. TS. Path Press Archives.
“Savage to Host Book Party.” South End Citizen [Chicago] 2 June 1983: 1. Print.
“Should Blacks Separate from the U.S.?” Transcript of Tony Brown’s Journal, episode#634. N.d. TS. Path Press Archives.
Steedman, Carolyn. Dust: The Archive and Cultural History. New Brunswick: RutgersUP, 2002. Print.
Travis, Dempsey J. “Harold,” the People’s Mayor: The Authorized Biography of MayorHarold Washington. Chicago: Urban Research, 1989. Print.
Watkins, S. Craig. Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema.Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998. Print.
Whiteside, Thomas. The Blockbuster Complex: Conglomerates, Show Business, and Book Publishing. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1981. Print.
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